- West Virginia
Almost Heaven: West Virginia from the local perspective
Tucked away in the mountains of Appalachia, West Virginia has long been a hidden gem. It’s a secret. And that’s its magic. It’s a place that’s “Almost Heaven” (as the John Denver song, Take me Home, Country Roads describes) – somewhere that makes you want to go outside and ride river rapids, dance to fiddle-heavy folk music and gaze up upon a star-full sky. It’s an escape from light pollution and an immersion in soulful American traditions. If you listen to locals, living here is a form of storytelling and myth-making, adventure and artistic expression. It’s practically heaven-sent. And visiting? It’s almost heaven.
Mountain Music in Charleston
West Virginia’s capital city on the banks of the Kanawha River is full of surprises. With the stunning wilderness of the Appalachian Mountains as its picturesque backyard, Charleston has a thrilling live music scene, trendy shops, wonderful regionally focused restaurants and nearby whitewater rafting that draws enthusiasts from far and wide.
Home to some of the country’s great, most distinctly American traditions, West Virginia’s musical culture is deeply rooted in the region. Like an Appalachian Grand Ole Opry, nowhere is better to experience the region’s rich live music tradition alongside some of the most talented national acts than at Mountain Stage, the long-running public radio music show recorded in front of a live Charleston audience. Shows are held Sunday nights at downtown Charleston’s Culture Center Theater. Each summer, the “City becomes a Work of Art” during FestivAll, a 10-day, 40-plus-venue arts festival that brings together some 90 arts and community organizations and attracts artists and musicians from around the country and the world. For day-in, day-out live music (seven nights a week!), The Empty Glass is a dive bar with stickers papering its walls, cheap beer and a friendly mix of locals, touring musicians, and out-of-towners visiting Mountain Stage, who often spillover into the Empty Glass after the show.
Larry Groce, the host of the Mountain Stage radio show
Capital of Cool
Charleston’s main strip, Capitol Street is lined with shady trees, historic architecture, local watering holes and small businesses, like the local favorite Taylor Books, which is part-bookstore, part-cafe and part-art gallery with gorgeous exposed brick walls and lofty ceilings. For exotic handcrafted ice cream flavors like Espresso Oreo, Lemon ZestivAll, Charleston Crunch and pawpaw (a fruit native to West Virginia), locals recommend Ellen’s Homemade Ice Cream. At the end of the street, the year-round Capitol Market is a historic train station turned public market, where you can find local delicacies like Chow Chow, a West Virginia variation on pickle relish that’s a Mountain State staple.
The charming storefront of Taylor Books
Charleston’s Appalachian Comfort Food
Cafe Appalachia prides itself on having “a greater purpose with every meal” and being “a social experience that centers around the table.” The cafe was created with the dual mission of bringing the Charleston community together and offering a healthy take on regional comfort food, including dishes like Country pork loin with fried apples, sweet potato soup, loaded mashed potato casserole, baked beans and the unofficial food of West Virginia, pepperoni rolls. Serving farm-to-table food with a twang, Bluegrass Kitchen opened in 2006 after family and friends spent 18 months renovating a century-old building in the city’s East End. The restaurant has a loyal local following for its elevated comfort food, like Trout & Grits, braised kale and bourbon mustard-dill sauce, or a Reuben sandwich with house-cured brisket and so-called sputnik sauce (the restaurant’s spin on Russian dressing).
West Virginia’s heavenly scenic beauty – gorges, mountains and rivers – attracts hikers, rafters and adventurers of all stripes. Charlestonians love the rapids along the Gauley River and in New River Gorge National Park and Preserve (the USA's newest national park, established in 2021). Both are perfect for everything from a gentle, bouncing float that’s great for beginners to an adrenaline-inducing Class V whitewater rafting ride. Just east of Charleston, Adventures on the Gorge is an upscale rafting resort that arranges all-skill-level river trips along with a zip line course and family outings for those not wanting to raft. Just down the New River, Beauty Mountain is less a mountain than a majestic collection of rock cliffs and boulders rising from the New River and providing what locals say is one of the area’s most spectacular, overlook-rich hiking trails. Even the gorge’s bridges, which include the most photographed spot in West Virginia, the New River Gorge Bridge, warrant a visit. The third tallest bridge in the United States (and 13th tallest in the world!), the majestic 267-meter-high, 923-meter-long span is a destination for architecture lovers and thrill-seekers.
The sun shining through the iconic New River Gorge Bridge
Next Stop: Wheeling
Wheeling is located about 286 kilometers (around 2.5-3 hours by car) from Charleston. During the Second Industrial Revolution in the USA, West Virginia’s Northern Panhandle was a magnet for immigrants from southern and eastern Europe who flocked to jobs in Wheeling’s booming steel mills. Over a century later, the area is still among the region’s most ethnically diverse and culturally vibrant. Between its ornate Orthodox churches, Victorian architecture and prolific ethnic festivals, Wheeling celebrates the state’s mountain culture with an unexpectedly diverse heritage.
The Wheeling Suspension Bridge, a major photo-op spanning the Ohio River
Country Crafts and Culture
A specialty store celebrating local artisans, Wheeling Artisan Center is your one stop West Virginia-made gift shop celebrating the state’s artists and artisans. You’ll find ceramic ale mugs, blown glass wine decanters, scented candles, books by West Virginia authors and locally-made goodies like bean-to-bar chocolate from Appalachian Chocolate Company and Thistledew Farm’s flavored honeys. Take in the region’s young, cool, contemporary art scene at Clientele Art Studio, a former garage in a historic section of town that has been repurposed as a place for artists to both make and show their art. Artsy and eclectic, Later Alligator is an offbeat crepe cafe where the menu is heavy on puns (think “Pesto-Change-O” or “Guac Around the Clock”). The decor is antique store chic and inclues one of the largest private collections of Wheeling Steel memorabilia.
Some of the artisan-made gifts for sale in the Wheeling Artisan Center
History Galore in Wheeling
Once among the richest cities in the country per capita, Wheeling has grand mansions and 19th century architecture, including landmarks like Capitol Theatre and Independence Hall. Along the riverfront, the city’s past life as a steel boomtown is celebrated in a series of rail trails – former B&O train lines that have been converted into walking and biking trails along the Ohio River and Wheeling Creek. These Heritage Trails are paved and marked with self-guided tour signs celebrating the city’s industrial glory days. Locals recommend hanging around long enough to watch a barge deftly navigate the river’s Pike Island Locks and Dam, which can be seen from the trail. Outside town, Oglebay Park dates to the late 1700s, when a frontiersman was awarded a land grant of 161 rolling hectares in what was once northwestern Virginia. The property, known as Waddington Farm, was ultimately purchased by industrialist Earl W. Oglebay, who developed it into what is now a 657-hectare public park, with a zoo, public lodging and a regionally famous light festival each winter.